I'm not quite sure what the reference to a "debating speech" was all about. I prefer not to speculate. In any case, whether or not a speech is a debating speech, is quite beside the point -- ultimately, what should matter is the content.
I will say though, that not all lawyers are debaters, and I most certainly am not and was not one. I must admit that part of me was both amused and secretly chuffed at the apparent suggestion that I'm a good debater, because the most I ever did was an intra-class debate in secondary school, and that was more than enough to show that I was quite lousy at it. The Minister is the debater, as he mentioned.
There is quite a lot of truth and merit to what the Minister says, about the causes of poverty. But even a casual reading of my speech will show that I did not advocate a bloated bureaucracy, as the Minister seems to suggest I did. I will, in a subsequent post, write a bit more about some post-Budget thoughts I have.
Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan
5 March 2008
5 March 2008
My current angst, when I talk about young people, is whether our children or our grandchildren, born in the midst of plenty, spend more time thinking about how to spend their inheritance. And sometimes even in this House, we hear debate that we are a rich country, we can spend more even if it means being wasteful. Instead of coming back to the basics that, yes, we do need safety nets, but we have to start with the family, and we have got to be self reliant, disciplined and hardworking. Because we must remember that, at the end of day, even when we talk about MCYS, money is important. Anyone who has been poor, directly or indirectly, will tell you money is very, very important. But money is also not enough. All the wealth in the world will not buy you happiness and success, nor will it eliminate all the social problems which we face. Those of us who do regular meet-the-people sessions, we see people coming with problems. Let me ask Members: do you really think their most fundamental problem is the lack of money? Is it a poverty of material wealth? Or is it usually a poverty of relationships? I think those of us who have been in this and lived long enough will agree that the real and bigger problem is the poverty of relationships.
So we all need families and we do need a compassionate society. And if we look around us, and we look at a child, we will know that the greatest predictor for failure is a dysfunctional family, if his parents are not there, if his parents do not care or do not know how to care, or his parents are physically in prison or because of addiction, gambling or whatever, and not there to provide that ballast and the emotional stability for the child.
But we also know that it is not just about families, because we all want a more compassionate, caring, a "softer" society. However, Singapore will fail, if our society degenerates into nothing more than a collection of successful individuals just achieving success and earning money for themselves and looking for pleasure and satisfaction for themselves. If we have no shared values, no shared ideals and no dreams, the Singapore experiment will fail, even if we have money and even if we have reserves.
One point I want to come back to in today's debate is I want Members to remember Mr. Sam Tan's brilliant speech last week. I was not here because I was overseas with the President, but I read his speech three times. He talked about how it is not a dilemma between the young and the old. It is not even a dilemma between the rich and the poor, but between head and heart. He said that the head knows we cannot be overly generous; the head knows that we sometimes have to be cruel to be kind. And yet the heart wants the poor to be rich and the weak to be strong. And he said that it is better that now we are preparing for all these problems before they become insoluble problems; the time to do it is now.
I also read with great distress Mr Siew Kum Hong's speech. I am a debater. That was a very brilliant debating speech. And I actually share his hopes when he said that he wants Singapore to be a more generous society that helps its most vulnerable members - beautiful words. But the danger was in the rest of his speech when he said, in order to fulfill this hope, we should be prepared to waste, we should be prepared to have a bloated bureaucracy, all in the name of helping people.
I believe in getting all the different actors on the social stage to do what they are best at. I believe in a small, efficient, rational, even calculating Government, because that is what governments can and should do best. I believe in a social service sector, a voluntary welfare sector led by many champions, people like Ms Denise Phua, no matter how much I disagree with her on points, I will always respect people like her because they do what they believe in, and they care and they care passionately about it.
When we say we want a more generous, compassionate, caring society, the lazy way out is to say, "We want the Government to be generous, compassionate and caring, and the Government can express that generosity, caring and compassionate by simply spending a lot of money." Raise taxes, spend a lot of money and pretend that we have achieved a generous society that helps people who are most vulnerable.
Our model is a small, efficient Government, with low taxes, so that people like Dr Loo Choon Yong can still continue cheerfully paying his taxes, because they are actually very low than if he were to live anywhere else in the world. But more than paying low taxes, we want him and people like him to donate money, time and attention to social causes which they care about. So I was very happy when I saw his name and Mr Sim Wong Hoo's name mentioned in the Forbes list of philanthropists.
What I am trying to spell to Members is a system in which individuals work hard, individuals look after their families, community organisations care and express the best parts of our heart, while the Government acts in the background carefully, rationally, logically and sensibly to make sure that the overall system functions. That is the context behind which I view every single policy, every single plan that my Ministry puts up.